by Erik Koht
It’s that old problem again, the one about dying in vain. We all die, most of us die in vain. We do nothing but prove the inevitability of death, a fact so mundane that it doesn’t need to be proven, so mundane we don’t even need to be reminded. Yet, of a soldier’s death we ask this question: “Did his death serve a purpose?” I hope it was not for nothing he gave his young life. I know he would have much rather have lived to be as old as I am and even longer. His superiors did not want him to die, yet he died. His family hoped he would survive the ordeal of war, yet he did not. It was not for dying that he went to war, and in most cases it wasn’t even for killing. His job was merely to be there, to be a cog in the machinery of war.
More than two million Americans have visited the recent theatres of war. To them this death means something. They knew it could have been them. Some, maimed for life might at some moment have wished it had been. For the rest of Americans, who never knew or heard of this soldier who died, he is a sad statistic. For friend or foe alike, his death - if ever they learn about it - might give rise to some fleeting thoughts about war and the death of soldiers and civilians. And if we are at all concerned about the sanctity of life, we might ask ourselves “Why?” We see the graph with columns and figures signifying the death of soldiers. Was in a “good” month, was it a horrible one? On paper or in our minds eye we see other columns and other curves marking the death of soldiers in earlier years. Was it a good year or a horrible one? We see statistics from other wars in years that have long passed. Kuwait, Vietnam, Laos, Korea... Were they good wars or horrible ones?
Some of these wars changed the world permanently, in ways that the death of a single soldier never can. That world map would have looked precisely the same, no matter if he had died or not. It takes a lot of lives to change the world. In fact it was not the dead that changed it, but the continued presence of those that survived. The death of a soldier is a loss, a loss most deeply felt by close family and friends, but a loss none the less to all. To society it is a mark of failure, demonstrating the lack of our ability to protect him. And that is where the learning begins.
Gone are the days of Somme and Verdun when five hundred thousand died in the course of a protracted campaign. The futility of a certain method of fighting was demonstrated. What a sad reason to die. It could have served as well with a bit of math on a piece of paper. Even toady the generals need a certain number of dead in order to do their math, in order to calculate the thickness of armour plate versus the road side mine. The thinking seems to go, one doesn’t blow up a perfectly good vehicle just to test it, it’s better to see what the enemy can do. Let us make sure that the death of this soldier was not a freak occurrence. Let us determine a pattern, and if one appears, let us study and rectify it. Get the money, redesign, make a model, get approval, start production. Thus the soldier did not die in vain if he was among the first to die. But what about those who died after, while all that studying was going on? Guess they died to teach people to think faster, huh.
All that die in a war zone, serve this purpose: to improve the weapons of war, its strategies, it manuals, its training exercises. Expose criminal negligence. And of course they help to feed the propaganda machine. Those that say, “Let not his death have been in vain.” In so saying, they may be thinking the stuff that I just wrote, but that is not what they actually say. They say it’s reason to send even more soldiers, to persevere, to prolong. One death is somehow reason to extend the killing phase. We get reasons for war that were not there to start with, ideas of honourable deaths and honourable revenge. It’s the stuff they feed those that have yet to put their lives in “harms way”. Those that send soldiers to their death do not pause for an instant. The dead soldier needs to be replaced. No word of his death is mentioned at the army recruitment offices. In those offices, his death is an aberration, a a hushed fact, not one blatantly denied, but not the first fact that meets you as you enter their offices. Death is something from the past, past wars, we know better now. We’ll take good care of you.
Unlike the chess player, the general has a box full of pawns and officers. He just has to put them on the board to replace the ones his opponent have whisked away. He learns of the death of our soldier like we learn of traffic fatalities. He will not be held responsible - soldiers are supposed to die. He deftly places a new pawn on the board and plays on. Other things will decide the outcome of this war: his funding, the political mood of the country, the message multipliers, the ability of his adversary to outthink him on logistics. With a trillion dollars at his disposal, he could buy the enemy many times over. But that would spoil it, wouldn’t it?
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